The Real Safari Experience: The Hardest Thing to Watch

The Real Safari Experience: The Hardest Thing to Watch

Warning: The following video and photos contain extremely graphic content. This is nature at its most violent and cruel.

I went in to our South African safari with the hope that I would see some truly fantastic animals at close range to observe them in their natural state. We had a wish-list of things to see, and over the course of 7 days on safari, we checked off nearly everything.

Most memorable, most haunting, most life-changing was when we checked off seeing a kill from start to finish.

(Change your settings in the video to HD for the best viewing experience)

On the morning of May 16, 2012, Mike and I went with our guide Grant on a short bush walk around the property of Motswari Safari Lodge in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve in South Africa. During this walk, Grant pointed out the different types of plants and showed us how he tracked animals. While on this walk, we saw extremely fresh footprints of more than one lion. Grant told us that he’d try to track them down for us later while we were on our night drive.

That evening, when we set off on our night drive, the lions were not far from where we had just walked a few hours earlier.

It was still hot and the lions were inactive, though showing signs of restlessness. It didn’t look like they’d be up any time soon though, so we moved on to other animals (including walking on foot to get closer to some rhino!).

A few hours later, on our way back to the lodge, we checked in on the lions and saw they were awake and alert. Though they had looked thin while we saw them in the afternoon, we could plainly see their ribs through their skin as they stood, sniffing the air.

Having these massive animals sniff the air, looking hungry and ready to hunt while only feet from our vehicle was thrilling, though I of course felt safe the whole time.

We went back to the lodge for dinner and a good night’s rest, and the next morning headed out for what would be our final drive of our trip before we boarded a plane back to Spain.

It was a good morning, to say the least. We got close to two curious young hyena males and then found ourselves amidst a herd of over 100 elephants. We could have called it a day and a trip right then and it would have been amazing.

But Grant, getting a call on his radio about something bigger, took us racing to another scene: the three lions were at a close-by camp and had greatly injured a male buffalo.

There were a few circumstances that made this particular area exceptional for us as viewers, as well as for the lions as predators. For us as viewers, the camp that the kill took place on was a private camp, which meant that only certain vehicles were allowed access to it. Motswari vehicles were allowed. Also, for us as viewers, since the lions had cornered this buffalo on this camp, the grass was not very thick or tall, allowing us full visability.

For the lions, this was incredibly convenient because it was in the open, where they could easily keep an eye on and defend their kill, they had trees nearby for shade, and there was a watering hole about 50 yards from them so they could easily drink and groom themselves over the next few days as they fed.

So there we were, in nearly perfect circumstances to witness what we had wanted to see since the beginning of our safari: a kill. But the buffalo was laying down and Grant informed us that the lions would wait until it stood up and started moving before they would take it down. We didn’t know when or if that would happen during the time we had left on our morning drive.

But lo and behold, the buffalo got up, got moving, and the six of us in that vehicle were able to witness the kill in full. Well, I suppose you could say five since one woman hid her face and was not able to watch.

Nothing prepared me for this. Nothing. No movie, no nature show, no experience from my past prepared me to witness the absolute and total agony of the buffalo. In my mind, there has always been “alive” and “dead.” Movies and nature specials show the hunt of an animal, the attack of the animal, and select shots of the feeding of the animal once its dead.

I had never in my life witnessed the process of “dying” until this moment, and I can say that it really has changed me in some subtle but profound way.

The blood and guts I could deal with. The cries of the buffalo were much harder as he looked at all of us, head lifted off of the ground, tongue out, panic in his eyes, screaming. It was chilling, but I couldn’t look away. I knew I was witnessing something important in my life, and I’m glad that I saw everything in its full, raw detail. It took forty minutes from the beginning of the attack for the buffalo to die.

The smell was also something that I was not prepared for. The smell of death was always the smell of formaldehyde to me, but now…now I associate a completely different smell with death, and it’s one I can’t describe.

I could smell the blood once the buffalo was on the ground, but once the stomach was open and once the innards were dislodged, the smell of this buffalo dying permeated the air. Even for days after, I felt like the smell was on me, following me. On the airplane going home, I could still smell it. When I got home and looked through the photos, I could smell it. Especially when I watched the video footage over and over again as I edited it, could I smell it.

I never thought of my sense of smell as being my strongest sensory memory, but the smell of this buffalo has truly haunted me.

We couldn’t help but be amazed at him though as he clung to life even while so much of him had been ravaged. His cries turned to soft mews, and I willed him to go toward the light, even though I don’t believe in such things. It was heartbreaking to see.

Right before his eyes started to roll, his eyes darted back and forth listlessly. And then his eyes rolled back in his head, he fell silent, his jaw fell slack. Grant said “he’s gone” and the rest of the world went silent, as the sun popped out from behind the clouds, shining ironically over such a gruesome scene.

And even now, I am still amazed at the magnificence of the lions. I recognize that nature doesn’t have to be fair and it doesn’t have to be nice and neat, so I also feel very much for the lions. These three lions, who had been orphaned young and as Grant told us, had to hunt for scraps of food as cubs, were survivors.

While I was sad for the buffalo’s agonizing and painful death, I could accept it more easily because of its necessity.  Even with blood covering their faces and manes, I was struck by how beautiful of creatures the lions are. Even after watching this video over and over through the process of editing, I still feel happy that these three lions had done everything they could to survive.

I know that the footage is gruesome. I know the cries are hard to hear. I know the photos aren’t easy to see. But this experience has truly given me a greater appreciation of the world we live in. It’s something I will not forget, and I’m grateful I was able to witness something so few have.

Thank you a million times over to Motswari Private Game Reserve and our guide, Grant Murphy for giving us the opportunity to witness this truly incredible event. If you’d like to see Grant’s photos and his write-up of this experience, visit his post here on Motswari’s blog.

If you’d like to see more posts and videos of our safari experience, stay tuned!

  • Um, WOW. That was intense. It sounds like it was incredible to experience in person and I agree completely that the hardest part is watching that poor buffalo suffer!

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  • Lea Mae Rice

    “I know that the footage is gruesome. I know the cries are hard to hear. I know the photos aren’t easy to see. But this experience has truly given me a greater appreciation of the world we live in. It’s something I will not forget, and I’m grateful I was able to witness something so few have.”
    Great post. It is hard to watch–but it is nature, and predators and prey both have a place in nature. They keep the system in balance that way. You did a great job of illuminating what that balance looks like.

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    Mandy Reply:

    Thank you, Lea! I appreciate your comment! It’s hard to define how seeing this has affected me, but I think just feeling such strong and opposing emotions over something so gruesome yet real was incredible enough to really reflect upon. I hope I captured all of the right feelings/emotions with this post!

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  • lauren05

    Wow.  This was very hard to watch, but a very well written post about such an experience.

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  • Creen14

    Wow.  I have to say I probably would have been the lady covering my eyes.

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  • I read the first part, but as soon as the lions attacked I had to skip the rest. I’m sure I would have been the lady with her eyes covered too; I just can’t handle watching anyone or anything suffer. What an experience, though.

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  • De-lurking to comment.   I’ve been following your blog since Wedding Bee.  I am a huge lion freak and am so jealous that you went on safari.  Watching that video left me breathless — and I had it on mute.  What an amazing experience…  I was surprised to see those young lions not go for the throat and my heart broke for the buffalo’s obvious drawn-out torture.  And at the same time, I realize it’s all in the circle of life.  Thank you so much for sharing this. 

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    Mandy Reply:

    Thank you for de-lurking, Margy!! I appreciate your comment, it really means a lot to me! Our guide was just as surprised that the lions did not go for the throat, but guessed that since they had been orphaned so young that they did not go for the throat because they had not quite learned that yet. It was really fascinating, and as I got to know a little more about the lions and how hard they had fought to survive, it made me really feel for them as they accomplished something between the three of them that usually only larger groups of lions would attempt.

    Again, thanks for the comment, I’m glad that you enjoyed it (well, as much as one could enjoy this video!). 

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    Margy Reply:

     🙂

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  • So is it because these were young, orphaned males that they had to hunt for themselves?  I thought usually the female lions were the hunters.

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    Mandy Reply:

    Carrie, that’s a really good question! The female lions usually are the hunters, but these lions were too young still to have taken over their own pride. Though, with how scrappy and fearless these three are at this point, it probably won’t be too long before they’re ready to challenge other males to gain their own pride.

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  • Amy

    Oh my gosh. As sad of a post subject this is, you wrote about it so beautifully. I’ve never seen anything like this, and as the buffalo was dying, I was holding back tears. The death must have been the hardest thing to see…the buffalo just clinging on to life at those last moments. I wonder if the young lions will ever learn how to kill quickly since they have no one to really learn from. 🙁

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  • Jill Coene

    Wow, absolutely incredible. My husband and I went on a safari a couple of years ago but did not get to witness a killing. Hard to watch but so very interesting! 

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  • I would NEVER want to see a live kill.  EVER.  I closed my eyes through most of your video.  I can’t deal with animals in pain, even if it is the natural cycle of thing (plus, I’m the biggest hypocrite carnivore — I eat meat fine, but don’t show me the cow!  Lechon is a big thing here in Manila, but seeing the whole roasted pig? Uh, yeah, I can’t do lechon).

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  • Wow, the video (and photos, and text) are incredible. You are very talented. 

    And what an experience; it sounds completely astounding to see. I would love to see something like this someday, because even though it’s gruesome it’s real and important and meaningful. 

    I can’t wait to see the rest of your safari!

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  • Wow…powerful. I don’t think I have much else to say. I didn’t see any of that during any of my safari experiences. That being said, i have also said that one of the most powerful things I’ve done is seeing animals in their natural habitats. It’s definitely something unforgettable. 

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  • Mrsmakesmeblush

    Oh my god. I could not do it. I couldn’t watch that poor buffalo being killed in such a gruesome way. I think I would have gone against all logic and  jumped out of the vehicle and gotten myself killed had I been there. My heart breaks for that poor animal. I know it’s completely natural- but just seeing the fear in his eyes in the photos(I can’t even imagine watching the video). I just couldn’t. 🙁

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  • Oh my god. That was so difficult to watch but amazing to see nature with our own eyes. What an experience for you! The video was like a National Geographic show, you have impressed me once again! 

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  • Lisa Bechinski

    I am in awe of what you were able to experience.  It would have been so hard to watch and I know I would have been in tears (and was a little reading and watching your vid), but it’s an experience few get to have.  Thank you for sharing this – it is really quite moving. 

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